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Demographic Perspectives on Current Issues

Category: Academia

The History of the Liberal Arts Degree

On numerous occasions I’ve encountered confusion about the meaning of the B.A. degree. This is, of course, an abbreviation of ‘Bachelor of Arts’. Why do students studying psychology or other social sciences earn an art degree? Do universities not recognize them as science? Why not a Bachelor of Science? The confusion is understandable. And no, psychology is not a fine art, like painting or music. Let me explain.

The ‘Arts’ in ‘Bachelor of Arts’ refers to the Liberal Arts, and is tied up in the history of the university. In recent years I’ve heard the term ‘liberal arts’ used in a derogatory sense, particularly on the internet in ‘science fan’ (read: not scientific) communities, like “lol you shouldn’t have got a liberal arts degree if you wanted a job!” In that context, I think ‘liberal arts’ is referring to the humanities, but one can never be too sure with these people.

What does the term ‘liberal arts’ actually mean? To answer this question, I’m going to draw upon my good friend historical context. The term itself comes from Latin and originates in the Roman Empire: as far as we know, the term artes liberalis was coined by Cicero. In essence they were subjects that all free men should learn in order to be well-rounded citizens; liberal as in liberty, art as in a skill obtained through study. Originally, the liberal arts consisted of the subjects of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Later, the subjects of grammar, logic, and rhetoric were added. So, historically, the liberal arts referred to one fine art, two math fields, a natural science, and a bit of humanities. As universities developed, more sciences were born, and these too came under the purview of the liberal arts. That is, all of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are liberal arts.

This should clear up another misconception about the term: the ‘liberal’ in liberal arts is not meant to associate these fields of study with liberalism (as in, the political philosophy borne out of the Enlightenment). In fact, the term predates liberalism by hundreds (maybe thousands) of years. Rather, the continued use of the term ‘liberal arts’ distinguishes them from the other three traditional university curricula, namely theology, law, and medicine.

Each of these departments typically has its own degree or credential. People studying medicine earn an M.D. (medicinae doctor), lawyers earn a LL.B. (legum baccalaureus, or bachelor of laws) or J.D. (juris doctor), and theologians earn a B.Th. (bachelor of theology). Students of the liberal arts typically earn a B.A. (bachelor of arts), M.A. (master of arts), and finally a Ph.D. (philosophiae doctor) if they continue that far. Traditionally, even if your degree was in theoretical physics, biochemistry, or microbiology you earned a B.A. degree.

Science degrees like the B.Sc. (bachelor of science) and M.Sc. (master of science) are a fairly recent invention. The first ever B.Sc degree was awarded in 1860, which is not all that long ago if we recall that Oxford University was founded in 1096 and isn’t even the oldest European university. Since the B.Sc. does not have much history behind it, awarding this degree is up to the university or department in question. Some universities, even top tier universities, continue to grant only B.A. degrees. This group of universities includes Oxford, a global top-3 university. Yes, the top natural scientists out of Oxford are awarded arts degrees.

Ultimately, the distinction between a B.A. and a B.Sc. is not a meaningful one. If a top school like Oxford remains entrenched in the tradition of ‘liberal arts’, the B.A./B.Sc. distinction cannot be a measure of quality. It’s arbitrary! That said, some departments do have differing requirements for a B.A. or a B.Sc. if they reward both, and the different degree denotes an educational track or focus. My neighbouring psychology department awards B.Sc. to students who take the quantitative track, which focuses on statistical courses and methods, and B.A. to students who take the qualitative track. My own department only grants arts degrees, even if you have a quantitative focus, so my own degrees say ‘arts’. In many schools, however, it’s just up to the student to decide which one they want, and the university awards them accordingly without any requirements. In sum, the notation of a degree can only be relevant if we have more detailed information about how the department which granted it functions.

The Outrageous Cost of Access to Research

As part of my graduate coursework, I took a reading course in family demography. The course was a survey of topics in the sub-field, covering landmark research and more recent developments. Topics included the meaning of family, family change, marriage & cohabitation, union dissolution, remarriage, fertility, and time-use. Over the four-month semester I read two books and 89 research articles as part of the curriculum, plus additional articles, responses, debates, and so on. Thankfully, as a student I had access to these resources for free through the university library, which maintains subscriptions to almost every journal I’ve ever needed to access throughout my education.

Even so, it’s hard not to notice the outrageous prices publishers charge for access to research articles. Usually I stumble upon them when Googling an article title online to find full citation information (issue numbers are frequently left out of article PDFs). I was inspired to write this post when I saw the price for this article:

They’re charging $39.95 USD for an article that’s over a decade old! That’s a few cents short of the cost of both of the books used in this course, combined! And, in Canada, that’s going to be closer to the $50-60 range. For about 20 good pages of content.

I was curious to know the total cost of doing this family demography course, so I looked up the price of every article and added them together. The cheapest item was actually one of the books ($11.99) – together, the books totaled $40.03.

Six of the articles were open access (costing nothing), and two were posted online for free by the professor who wrote them. The total cost of the remaining 81 articles, if bought individually at the cheapest price I could find, was $1917.80 USD (around $2500 CAD). That seems like a large sum to ask someone to pay just to survey key papers in one sub-field. It’s many times the tuition I paid to take the course.

We can reduce the price a bit via’s JPASS, which is $19.50 per month for unlimited reading. Many of the articles in my course were available via JPASS, which cut the price down to $784.30. The remaining articles would need to be purchased individually. I tried journal subscription and association options, but these did not apply to previous years or were of limited value due to the date spread of the articles in question.

Being experienced in this sort of thing, I scoured the internet for the cheapest price. Of course, if you’re in academia you know all sorts of tricks to reduce the cost of access to research. You can frequently get a paper for free from a professor just by asking them. Some professors (like Dr. Steven Ruggles, bless his soul) host their articles for free right on their personal or faculty websites.’s JPASS subscription offers access to thousands of journals for about the same price as my combined Netflix and Spotify subscriptions, which is affordable, offering unlimited reading. Where JPASS fails is via limited downloading (which makes note-taking and annotation more difficult), and most journals have a significant time-lag so that you can only read research that’s (in my experience) at least 3 years old (for generous journals) to at least 6-7 years old (e.g. Journal of Marriage and Family). People say ‘open access’ is an option, but of the 89 articles I read only 6 were open access. Sometimes articles are available on the high seas, but this is frequently not the case.

Ultimately, the question here is: can we expect the general public to know how to find research articles for free or cheap, especially considering that this is almost a ‘skill’ we learn over the course of our university education? Personally, I think that expectation is unreasonable, and the cost of access could be damaging to the transmission of knowledge to the public.

One could argue that the price of accessing research can be so high because the time and expertise of people doing this research is valuable. And this would be understandable, if any of the money you spend on these articles actually went back to the professors who wrote them. However, researchers don’t see any royalties on articles they publish; they’re primarily funded by their university or other organization they’re attached to, government grants, or other interested third-parties (and since a large element of research money is typically publicly funded, it’s reasonable to ask why the public doesn’t have access). Journal editors and peer-reviewers usually do their work on a volunteer basis. To top it off, researchers usually have to pay handsome fees to publish in the first place. For instance, the journal Demography charges a $25 fee to have your article even considered. If it’s accepted, it’s an additional $25 per page. Publishing a 20-page research article in Demography will run you $525 minimum. The only return researchers get is prestige (and possibly tenure). So, if you’re not paying for the time and expertise of experts, where is the money going?

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